Possibilities & Necessities: Acquiring the force dimension of modals

Ailís Cournane, NYU (joint project with Anouk Dieuleveut (UMD), Valentine Hacquard (UMD), and Annemarie van Dooren (UMD))


How do children figure out the force of the modals they hear in their input language? Previous studies on the acquisition of modal force have focused on scalemates and scalar implicatures, assuming that preschool age children already understand the base force of modal words like can and must (Hirst & Weil, 1982, i.a.). However, these results show children accept possibility modals in necessity contexts (Noveck 2001), and necessity modals in possibility contexts (Ozturk & Papafragou 2015). We focus on the more basic problem of what cues for force are available to children in their input. This problem is non trivial for several reasons, including: modals of differing force occur in the same syntactic environments, necessity meanings entail possibility meanings, and speaker meanings often obscure intended force. We discuss potential solutions to the problem, including utterances with explicit contrasts of modals, disjunction, negation. We present initial results from 12 mother-child pairs from ongoing corpus work (Manchester Corpus, Theakston et al. 2001).